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2013-08-01

Hanging Tree Ranch incident - a dark Civil War crime Part I

By Irene Van Winkle Special to the Courier

(Editor's note - Irene Van Winkle's husband is a descendant of one of the eight men killed in Bandera County during the Civil War. The Courier is pleased to present her extensive research into the Hanging Tree incident in four parts.)

Eight slain men have lain in a single grave two miles south of Bandera since the Civil War. A grove of trees gracefully, somberly arcs over them - guarding, mourning and marking that spot.

Even now, 150 years later, their deaths are still being disputed. It is a classic example of the concept "There are two sides to every story."

On Sunday, July 21, at 11 am, a commemoration of this tragedy - which some call an atrocity - was held at the Hanging Tree Ranch on FM 1077.

Ranch owner Phil Watkins, a San Antonio attorney, invited descendants of the hanged men who were all from Williamson County; historians and others interested in the history of the Civil War, the Confederacy, Hill Country, Texas and of Camp Verde; members of the Texas, Kerr and Bandera Historical Commissions, as well as the public, to the commemoration.

Explaining his purpose behind the event, Watkins said, "Our family has owned the Hanging Tree Ranch since 1981. Over the years, many descendants have called the Frontier Times Museum for directions to the ranch or to get in touch with me. It is apparent that the gravesite is important to many people as evidenced by the number of persons who visit each year.

"We consider it an honor to keep and maintain the grave and make it available to family descendants. Our hope for the commemoration is that families will share the stories passed down about the events and especially the reason for the trip to Mexico."

The modest grave, covered with rocks, is girded by protective fencing. At the head of the tiny plot sits a single stone marker, oval-shaped at the top. Above the names of the men is carved a right hand holding a few links of chain, with the index finger pointing down, holding two broken links. Below are these inscriptions:
"CJ Sawyer, WM Sawyer, George Thayre, William Shumake, Jack Whitmire, Jake Kyle, John Smart, Mr. Van Winkle.
"Died July 25, 1863.

"Remember friends as you pass by, As you are now, so once was I, As I am now, you soon will be, Prepare yourself to follow me."

A number of sources have been published, researched and orally passed along, and some facts are consistent.

It is known that these men were from Florence in Williamson County, close to Burnet County. They had stopped at Bandera, and by some accounts, brought or won a considerable sum of money - about $900. This was no small amount, especially during the Civil War. In fact, it would be the equivalent of $20,000 to $25,000 in today's dollars.

What has been questioned is what was told - an account saying they had said they were traveling, heading to Mexico. Were they deserters, or innocent men looking to get provisions? After all, at least three of them had served in the Confederate Army, but they claimed they were on leave. Had the records been tampered with, or was the term "deserter" not accurate?

Was someone envious or suspicious and then reported them as "bushwhackers?"
Next week, Part II will examine the accounts of the actual hanging.